I expected a figure who towered over me, with a booming voice, which would make me stand to attention and who would put me in my place, if I so much as said anything out of turn; but the Maria Chin Abdullah I met, swept away all doubt. Meeting her was like meeting one of my old school friends.
If Maria was a CIA operative and terrorist, she certainly fooled me. Unless, that is how secret-agents, or double-agents operate, they try to act normal. Maria was as normal as any Malaysian I know.
As far as I am aware, from talking to her friends and colleagues, the young Maria was a leader of a student body called the Federation of United Kingdom and Eire Malaysian and Singaporean Student Organisations (FUEMSSO), during her time at university, in the 80s.
At the time I met her, 18 months ago, she was the chairman of Bersih. Her experience in defending the marginalised, disenfranchised women and democracy, was second to none. She was a larger than life figure, in more ways than one.
Maria is as tall as me; we’re both around five-foot-nothing. Her face is framed by a bob, which made her look more like a schoolteacher, of the more friendly kind, not the one that barks at you and chews you up, when you answer a question incorrectly.
Even in one’s wildest imagination, one could not imagine Maria with a Kalashnikov and a beret, barking orders, acting the terrorist.
Knowing her, she would break into a fit of giggles, at having to lug the heavy weapon and clomping around in heavy desert boots and dressing in army fatigues.
If she were a CIA operative, it is difficult to picture her lurking in the shadows, following people around, using a dead drop, to send her coded messages, or to receive instructions, from the CIA. Maria once confided that she has weak knees.
The Maria I met had an infectious laugh and her eyes would light up when she smiled. She was someone who used her arms and hands, to great effect, to demonstrate a particular point. From time to time, as a reassuring gesture, she would rest her palm on your arm.
Despite the soft-spoken voice, her tone would rise, when she wanted to stress something important. You knew that when you were speaking to her, she had time for you. This is not a common trait amongst many people at the top of civil society movements, who prefer others to listen to them, but will not listen to others.
As you engage her in conversation, her gaze is fixed on you, as she speaks; however, the most startling thing about her, as your eyes wander over her, is not so much the yellow scarf, draped around her, but her accessories. They are eye-catching, conversation starters.
A friend of Maria, who would prefer to remain anonymous said, “She leads a busy life as an activist, and cherishes every minute of her free time, but loves to dress-up for special occasions. She likes trousers. She adores big earrings and bags. Her ensemble will include the Bersih colours.”
Fearful for Maria, who may be held for 28 days, under SOSMA, a friend said, “Maria led with passion and care. She never used threats. She is a fair person and a good friend. She once said to me that the road ahead is bumpy but I will persevere for a better Malaysia.
“In the early eighties, she stopped activism, to support her family, as her father’s business was affected by the economic downturn.
“The Maria I know is the best mobiliser of people. Selfless and tireless. She gave up a good job to be an activist.
“Maria is a nationalist, a true member of the Rakyat Malaysia, who believes in justice, and fair and just processes.”
In a cruel twist of irony, Maria’s incarceration has stirred greater interest in Bersih. Malaysians are indebted to her, for she has successfully managed to awaken our consciences, and encourage us to fight, to ensure that our true democratic rights are upheld.
Source : Mariam Mokhtar@The Heat Malaysia Online